Monday, December 19, 2011

Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow renounces Christianity

Denver, CO.  A day after his Denver Broncos were defeated 41-23 at Sports Authority Field in Denver, starting quarterback Tim Tebow, long known for his frequent sideline prayers, announced that he was renouncing Christianity.  "I'm done with Him", a dejected Tebow told a Denver sports columnist during a locker-room interview at the Bronco's practice facility.  "Everything that I've done was for the Lord, and how does He repay me?  He sends His angels to speed the feet of the gosh darn, excuse me, Patriots' linebackers, and I spent half the afternoon on my back.  No more!" 

"I feel like Salieri, do you know what I mean?"  Tebow stated, referring to the Austrian classical composer who was a contemporary and rival of Mozart.  Impersonating F. Murray Abraham's Oscar-winning portrayal of the jealous court composer, Tebow continued:  "From now on we are enemies, You and I. Because You choose for Your instrument a boastful, lustful, smutty, infantile boy--yeah, I'm talking about Brady--and give me for reward only the ability to recognize the incarnation. Because You are unjust, unfair, unkind, I will block You, I swear it. I will hinder and harm Your creature on earth as far as I am able."

"But it's not just Brady" sniffed the former collegiate star for the Florida Gators.  "It's Favre.  It's McMahon.  It's Namath.  Football is the greatest sport that the Heavenly Father invented, but who does He choose to be its heroes?  Womanizers.  Drunks.  Partiers.  My brother Aaron Rodgers is far too humble to tell you this, but despite leading the Packers to a 13-1 record, all he hears anywhere in the whole state of Wisconsin is Brett this, Brett that.  I mean, Brett Favre went and played a season for the Minnesota Vikings.  Lucifer's team.  Aaron is a good man, and this is how the Lord treats him?"

"I'm done with God."

Immediately after the interview, Tebow reportedly sacrificed a small goat in the locker room's Jacuzzi.  While team officials refused to comment on the incident, Tebow was suspended for Saturday's game against the Buffalo Bills for an unspecified violation of team rules.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

A Bruce Springsteen classic updated for the Youtube era

I bought a bourgeois loft down in the Pearl
Put it on my credit card, with my girl
Man came by to hook up my ISP
We settled in for the night my baby and me
We surfed 'round the Youtube ’til half-past down
Fifty-seven million channels and nothin’ on

Well now portable media was my baby’s desire
So I one-clicked on Amazon for a Kindle Fire
A big brown truck came with a little brown box
Punched in the wifi password and we started to watch
404 came back from the great beyond
Fifty-seven million channnels and nothin’ on

Well we might’ a made some friends with the one percent
Be stayin' in nice hotels instead of sleepin' in a tent.
All I got was a note that said "Bye-bye Juan
Our love's fifty-seven million channels and nothin’ on"

So I bought a brand new Taser down at the local Fry's
And in the blessed name of Springsteen I just let it fly.
’Til my computer lay smoking there at my feet
And they busted me for disturbin’ the almighty peace
Judge said "What you got in your defense son ?"
"Fifty-seven million channels and nothin’ on"
I can see by your eyes friend you’re just about gone
Fifty-seven million channels and nothin’ on
Fifty-seven million channels and nothin’...

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Fourth Directive of economic policy

The 1987 Peter Verhoeven dystopian science-fiction film Robocop concerns the adventures of the title character--a prototype cyborg law enforcement officer, constructed from the remains of a dead Detroit policeman by a giant consumer-products conglomerate, which was seeking to win a contract to replace the Motor City's police force, which was involved in a labor dispute with the city.  Robocop's activities were bound by three directives which he would mechanically repeat at public function:  Serve the public trust!  Protect the innocent!  Uphold the law!   Unbeknownst to most, including the conscious mind of Robocop himself, there was a fourth directive as well, and while the first three were arguably platitudes more than anything, the fourth was not:  do not arrest or harm any senior executive of Omni Consumer Products, the aforementioned corporation which was his creator. 

The movie was critically acclaimed (and a big box-office hit) and is highly recommended (its lame sequels are another matter).  However, the purpose of this post is not film criticism, but analogy.

Economic policymakers around the world, both in the US and (more recently) in the Eurozone, have various policy directives which guide their activities.  The Fed explicitly has a dual mandate to fight both unemployment and inflation, policymakers elsewhere are similarly charged.  Yet in many cases, including the current handling of the European debt crisis, policymakers at institutions such as the Fed and the ECB act as though they are guided by a "fourth directive" as well; and that fourth directive seems to be something along the lines of the following:

Do not do anything which will significantly harm the interests of capital.  

The various policy arms of the US government went to heroic lengths to bail out the financial markets, but seems far less interested in bailing out distressed homeowners.  Whether or not this is because the banks are really "too big to fail" (meaning their demise would truly produce systemic collapse), or simply too politically powerful to be allowed to fail, is an open question--but after programs such as TARP were enacted, it seems offensive to hear politicians tut-tutting about moral hazard when the subject is people losing their homes to foreclosure.

A similar scenario is now playing out in Europe, where the ECB seems intent in ensuring that the financial markets in the wealthy northern countries get their pounds of flesh, via imposition of stark austerity programs on the poorer southern Eurozone countries, programs which will likely result in a severe recession (on top of the current one), and may lead to the breakup of the Euro itself.  Granted, some of the debtor countries arguably went beyond their means and over-leveraged themselves to the point that an economic downturn left them unable to pay off their debts (Spain, Italy), and at least one debtor country could be fairly described as a deadbeat republic (that would be you, Greece).  The sanest course of action for European policymakers--insisting that the (mainly German) banks which made the bad loans in the first place take a haircut, combined with an injection of capital into the markets to protect depositors and refloat the Mediterranean economies, however, is simply not under consideration. 

Interestingly enough, the Fed last week announced a program to lend dollars at low rates to the ECB, in an attempt to stabilize European financial markets, a maneuver which prompts three questions:  1) The ECB is a sovereign currency issuer; why does it need to borrow money to fund its market operations, particularly when the bulk of the debt in question is denominated in Euros and not dollars?  2) Why is the US government being so activist in bailing out foreign financial markets?  3) And, particularly, if the answer to question #2 is "to prevent/limit recession", which is itself not unreasonable, then why is there so much reluctance to similarly intervene in the domestic economy, particularly on behalf of beleaguered consumers and underwater homeowners?

A likely answer to these three questions can be found within the fourth directive.

Friday, November 25, 2011

On the ouster of UO president Richard Lariviere

This past week, the Oregon State Board of Higher Education announced that they would not be renewing the contract of University of Oregon president Richard Lariviere.  Tensions had long existed between Mr. Lariviere and the board, who had placed the head Duck on a short leash last summer, awarding him only a one-year contract, a move which was highly unusual.  But now the other shoe has dropped, and Mr. Lariviere is, as of next summer, out.

Mr. Lariviere is, of course, disappointed.  Many in the UO community are outraged.  Phil Knight called the Board's decision an example of "assisted suicide".  The Board is not talking, other than to note a "disagreement about the future of the university."

I'll say.

The disagreement was about far more than the future of the University of Oregon.  The dispute was about the very nature of higher education in Oregon.

(I should mention at this point that I'm an alumnus of Oregon State.  While I relish beating the Ducks on the athletic field, outside of sports and other extracurricular activities, I don't view UO or any other college in the state as "competition" to be defeated; particularly when it comes to academics.)

The proposal that got Mr. Lariviere in hot water was a 2010 proposal to give the University of Oregon more independence from the Board--one which would match $800 million in private donations with $800 million from the state to provide the university with an endowment which would reduce its need for future funding from (and thus political dependence on) the state Board.  He also suggested that UO have its own board of directors, separate from the state Board, a proposal which obviously did not go over well.  Mr. Lariviere also annoyed some when he used private donations to raise pay for professors.

It's easy to dismiss this as political infighting, and of the Board smacking down someone who didn't know his place.  That is, after all, probably part of it.  It's also easy to play the Randian card, as some at the UO are doing (ironically, given the student body's political leanings), claiming that this is a case of a band of mediocrities (the Board, and by extension, the other five state universities, particularly those on the Park Blocks and in Corvallis) beating down a peer who tries to excel, like the hypothetical crabs in a bucket preventing an ambitious fellow crab from escaping.  But buried in all the heated rhetoric, is a real difference of opinion on how higher education should be structured.

The current structure is of an essentially centralized system.  The six general-interest public universities in the state (UO, Oregon State, Portland State, Western Oregon, Eastern Oregon, and Southern Oregon) are all supervised by the state Board, and each given a role to play in providing education to the state's students (and to students from out-of-state), and are expected to play that role and stay within their boundaries.  The three regional universities focus on undergraduate education in specialized fields, with limited graduate programs; the three comprehensive universities offer a wide range of disciplines, and have extensive graduate and research programs, including doctoral studies in many fields.  Different schools focus on different majors, though there is significant overlap between them. 

In practice, there is quite a bit of turf war that is fought.  OSU, for example guards its engineering program jealously, and attempts to expand the scope and quality of engineering at PSU as frequently treated as a threat, despite Silicon Forests' frequent demands for a flagship engineering school that is closer than Corvallis. 

On the other hand, it's easy to see that administrators at other universities might view Mr. Lariviere's proposals as threatening in a way that proposals to expand Portland State's EE program might not be.  Right now, the state of Oregon doesn't have a "primate university".  No, that's not a term referring to monkeys, but a term meaning a dominant flagship school which is widely regarded as the premier public university in a political region.  To the south, California is big enough for two primate schools, with UCLA in Southern California and UC-Berkeley in the Bay Area.  To the north, the University of Washington stands head and shoulders about the other schools in the state in terms of academic and social prestige (and in resources); it's peer in the Pac-12, Washington State University, is frequently dismissed as a second-rate ag school that offers a lackluster education in anything other than agriculture and related disciplines, despite being a full-service university.  On the other hand, Oregon's land-grant school (OSU) enjoys much more parity with UO in academics, and has the best reputation among the state schools in quite a few non-agricultural disciplines.  However, neither UO nor OSU (nor PSU) enjoys the nationwide prestige that UW enjoys.

I suspect that a big reason that Lariviere is getting the hook, is that many in the state higher-ed establishment suspect that he wanted to erect a primate university in Eugene--that his proposed reforms were intended to go beyond simply improving the quality of the current degree programs offered at the UO, and instead try to expand the scope of UO's offerings in a manner that encroaches on the other major universities in the state.  Were any of the three major public universities to transition to primate-school status, the two most likely are UO and PSU--the latter because of its location in the state's largest city and economic capital (and close physical proximity to OHSU, with which a merger has been previously discussed), and the former because of the wealth of its donor base, which far outstrips those of Oregon State or Portland State.  (OSU, which is located in a college town rather than a major city, which has extensive agricultural programs, a discipline which tends to carry a stigma in the upper-class cultural circles where such decisions are often made, and which lacks billionaire alumni such as Mr. Knight, is probably the least likely candidate to become a primate school). 

Should the state of Oregon have a primate school--a flagship institution which towers about the rest?  Or is it better-served by the current model?  I don't know the answer to that question.  The quality of an educational system is often judged by the (perceived) quality of its top institution, so perhaps its better to have an A-list school and a bunch of C-list schools and/or specialty schools, than several B-list schools.  On the other hand, no existing institution is going to surrender its prestige and resources voluntarily.  It should be noted that the state of Washington has a higher ed structure which is more similar to what Mr. Lariviere would like, with UW and WSU having far greater autonomy, and the state higher education apparatus instead focusing on the regional schools and community colleges within the Evergreen State.

Perhaps this is a conversation that the educational establishment, and the people of Oregon, ought to be having.  Perhaps the forced departure of Mr. Lariviere will encourage the conversation to take place.  But the current soundbites being bandied about don't serve to enlighten the discussion--instead, they simply reaffirm suspicions that athletic rivalries have become extended in the classroom as well.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

When the chain of command fails

The sports world has been abuzz at the shocking story of former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, who was recently indicted on multiple counts of sexual abuse.  Much attention has been focused on an incident nearly a decade ago when a graduate assistant with the PSU football program, investigating a noise in a locker room, discovered Sandusky (then no longer employed by the university, but running a football camp for kids on campus) in the showers sodomizing a young boy.  The assistant told coach Joe Paterno, who told campus higher ups--who responded by shutting down Sandusky's camp.

But nobody, apparently, bothered to call the cops.

In many institutions, one is taught to recognize--and respect--the chain-of-command.  You see something wrong, you tell your boss.  Or call one of those HR hotlines that promises anonymity.  But going outside the chain--outside the institution--is often seen as disloyalty, and discouraged.

But here's the problem.  We're not talking about a violation of team rules, or NCAA regulations, or university policy here.  (Or even a minor infraction of the law such as an underage football player in a bar sloshed out of his gourd).  A child was being raped.  This is not a matter for the head coach, or the athletic director, or the deans and provosts and regents to deal with.  This is a crime, and a matter for law enforcement.  I have a son who is the same age as the victim in the rape mentioned above, so this story has a somewhat personal angle, even though it's across the country.

I'm not going to pronounce judgment on Paterno in this post, even though I believe he probably has some coming his way.  Instead, it's important to make a broader point.  Institutions--whether its the Roman Catholic Church, the Penn State football program, the National Restaurant Association, or any number of corporations whose employees and officers have been caught engaging in wrongdoing--like to protect themselves.  People trust and believe in their friends.  And when given a choice between sweeping something under the rug, and doing the right thing; many will choose the former.  Institutions often create rules and policies which effectively encourage this.

For matters which are truly internal, this is fine.  But for things that are the business of society--and protecting children from molesters is certainly in this category, the chain of command often fails.

When a violent crime occurs, even within the confines of an institution's ivy-covered walls, the correct--and only--response is not to tell the boss. 

It's to call the police.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Thoughts on the "liberal media"

Think about it, folks:

If the media were really a "liberal media"--i.e. in the tank for liberal policies and politicians, would we really be hearing about in the media how liberal the media were?  After all, where do we hear that the media is liberal?  From the media! 

If the media were truly liberal, and trying to promote a liberal agenda--they'd be blathering instead about what a bunch of right wingers they are; and how reality is actually to the left of what the media says.  In other words, they would be trying to shift the Overton window to the left.

But instead, the media goes on and on about how liberal they are, which means that someone is trying to move the Overton window to the right.

So is the media really "liberal"?

The DHT reports.  You decide.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Random Facebook thought for the day...

I've got a great idea for a cheesy sci-fi TV show.  In said show, a group of futuristic astro-archeologists, led by a Really Nerdy Guy played by William Peterson, zooms 'round the galaxy from dead planet to dead planet, trying to figure out what natural phenomenon or act of collective stupidity offed the sentient life-forms that used to live there. 

I'm not sure if Earth gets visited in the premiere, or the finale.

Bonus points if it involves apes and the Statue of Liberty

I invite suggestions for the name of this show in the comments.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Social Security and "funny money"

Social Security has been in the news lately, with the decision of current Texas governor and GOP presidential hopeful Rick "" Perry to refer to the program as a Ponzi scheme.  While his rhetoric has been roundly disputed, and while the decision of W² to firmly grasp the third rail of US politics with both hands so far appears unwise; such rhetoric plays well into the hands of those who believe that the program is on unstable financial footing.

From an actuarial point of view, the Social Security Trust Fund is reported to have sufficient funding to pay all its expected obligations until 2036, at which point the trust fund itself (currently about $4 trillion) will be depleted--an event would sharply reduce benefits were it to occur, but which would not end the program completely.  With various tweaks, such as no longer capping payroll taxes or further means-testing of benefits, the life of the trust fund can be extended many decades beyond that.  (Medicare and disability insurance have more pressing funding problems; this article focuses entirely on the non-medical social insurance).

However, many critics of the program instead argue it is in perilous trouble, with apocalyptic terms such as "bankruptcy" or "fraud" or "Ponzi scheme" thrown around; accusations which are routinely given credence in the press.

What's in the trust fund

A major issue of contention is just what is in the Social Security trust fund.  Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer referred to the trust fund as "a fiction", which contains nothing but IOUs which are, in his words, "worthless".   Other commentators have stated that the trust fund contains "funny money", as though there's a bank vault somewhere in the DC suburbs full of Monopoly scrip or Burger Bucks. 

What the trust fund actually does contain is various types of US government treasury securities--debt which is the US is legally obligated to pay, and is backed by the full faith and credit of the US government.  As such, monies owed to the Social Security trust fund is counted as part of the national debt (Social Security obligations are about 30% of the total public debt of about $14 trillion). 

Mr. Krauthammer is an intelligent fellows, and both know full well how the SS trust fund is structured and what it contains.  Assuming that both are being forthright in their assessments of the situation, it stands to reason that they believe either one of the following things are true:
  • The US government will indeed, in the near future, default on its public debt.  I'm sure that Wall Street and the world of international finance (particularly the Chinese), not to mention the many patriotic Americans who directly hold Treasuries in their investment portfolios, will not be happy to hear that the securities widely considered the safest investments in the world, are in fact "funny money" and/or "worthless".  The financial markets, needless to say, don't believe either to be the case, and are happily continuing to by US Treasuries despite a ridiculously low rate of return (and despite Standard and Poor's ridiculous decision to downgrade US debt).
  • OR---there won't be a general default on the public debt of the United States, but that the Social Security trust fund--at some point in the future--will be stiffed, either by a targeted default or by act of law.

Smart money bets that they are assuming the latter.

How independent is social security?

In discussing Social Security, it is important to consider its structure, and its independence from, the rest of the US Government.  Under current law, Social Security is structured as a program with separate books from the US Treasury.  It is run by a Board of Trustees (who enjoy wide immunity from political interference), and its operations are prescribed by law:  Payroll taxes come in, social security checks go out.  Excess funds are required, again by law, to be invested in US Government debt, and the Treasury is required to redeem these bonds when they expire.  For a long time, while the Baby Boomers were in the work force, the value of the trust fund grew as receipts exceeded benefits; with the Boomers starting to retire, now the opposite is happening and the trust fund is starting to decline in value.  Presently, the value of the trust fund--which represents the amount of taxes collected over the program's life, minus the benefits dispersed--is around $4 trillion, invested in US securities.   This view of Social Security, as an independent actor separate from the US government, and a creditor thereto, is held by many people.

Many Washington insiders hold a different view of Social Security--namely, that it's just another government agency among many, and that the trust fund and the Treasuries contained within are little more than an accounting fiction.  In this point of view, Social Security has no more claim on the Treasury than the US Forest Service or the U.S. Board on Geographic Names; and current and future recipients ought to have no expectation of future benefits.  (Indeed, former Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson often refers to "greedy geezers", and infamously called the program a "cow with 310 million tits", implying that the claims of retirees are somehow illegitimate).

Which view is right?  In a way, both.  The key phrase above is "under current law".

If no act of Congress changes the law, Social Security will continue to operate as prescribed until the trust fund runs out (at which point benefits will be reduced to match payroll tax receipts).  But that's a big if--the program is a creation of law, and if Congress wishes to alter or abolish the program, nothing prevents it from doing so.  Nothing prevents a future Congress (and a like-minded, or veto-overridden President) from abolishing the program, ending benefits immediately, and redirecting payroll tax revenues into the pockets of the most job-creating billionaires the government can find.  Likewise, nothing prevents a future Congress from deciding to bolster the trust fund with general fund revenues funded by a new soak-the-rich tax.  And nothing prevents the government from reducing the overall public debt by essentially reducing the trust find size (cancelling or forgiving some of the Treasuries in the process), and reducing benefits accordingly.

Of course, all of these things would take an act of Congress to pull off.  And there is not, at the present time, sufficient political support in Congress or among the electorate to defund the program--it isn't called the third rail of US politics without a good reason, as the governor of Texas is starting to discover.  Social Security is immensely popular, and no generation has a desire to be the generation that pays into the program but gets nothing out of it.

So why do so many conservative politicians speak of Social Security as though its demise is imminent, and as though the post-Baby Boom generations are going to find an empty cupboard when it is their (our) turn to retire and collect benefits?  And why, when the program was running demographic surpluses, were they happy to go spend the money on other things (like tax cuts), but now seem to regard the upcoming pig-through-the-python as an insoluble problem?

The questions are rhetorical.  The answers--are left as an exercise for the reader.

Monday, August 8, 2011

The unanswered austerity question: What level of debt is ideal?

Right now, a big chunk of the political class in the US, including the President, is in the mood for a little austerity.  The public debt is just too high, so sayeth the punditocracy. Some go far as to propose various flavors of "balanced budget amendment", though many such proposals contain other terms (such as requiring supermajorities to raise taxes) that many consider objectionable.  Ignoring salient issues such as the seriousness of deficit hawks (do they really want to lower the public debt, or simply oppose the spending desires of the other party, but don't mind at all spending public funds on their own priorities) and how do we get there, there's a significant question that hasn't really been discussed with regard to the deficit:

Where should it be, anyway?

Should it be zero, forever? 

Should it be zero over a long-term time window (several decades), but permit fluctuations as necessary to deal with short-term economic cycles?

Should a long-term deficit be maintained, albeit at a lower fraction of GDP than we currently have?

Should the permitted deficit be dependent on inflation-adjusted interest rates--in other words, if the bond market thinks the debt is too high, then its too high?  (And given that despite Friday's S&P downgrade, interest rates on Treasuries remain absurdly low--does the market really conclude that the US poses an unacceptable credit risk)?

Should the US government actually attempt to have a surplus?  (And if one assumes that the dollar remains a fiat currency which the US can create or destroy at will; what would the point be of the US having a surplus in its own currency?)

Should Congress be required to use PAYGO accounting--appropriations and taxes need to be balanced, albeit not in the same fiscal year? 

In other words, what is the endgame of austerity?  And what is the justification--economic, political, moral, whatever--for that position?

Simply assuming that it's good for you, without discussing why or in what dose, strikes me as a major opportunity for mischief.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

A tale of two stimuli

In response to the Great Recession, the Obama Administration prepared a stimulus package:  The American Recovery and Investment Act injected nearly $800 billion into the US economy, through a combination of tax reductions directed towards the lower income brackets, and accelerated funding for numerous infrastructure projects.  Many economists insisted that the amount of stimulus was too low, but that was the amount the political process could deliver.  There is ample evidence that the ARRA did help arrest the job losses resulting from the 2008 crash of the financial markets, but it did not restore unemployment to pre-crash levels. 

In response to the budget surpluses of the late 1990s, as soon as George W. Bush got into office, another stimulus act was passed--the so-called "Bush tax cuts"--a $3 trillion reduction in the federal income tax, with the lion's share going to wealthy taxpayers.  One year after the Bush cut was passed, the country experienced a minor recession (mainly caused by corruption and extravagant speculation in the equity markets for high-tech).  Then 9/11 happened, and the US marched off to war to the tune of another $1.2 trillion.  The Bush Tax Cuts, set to sunset in 2010 (done so they could be passed under reconciliation rules and avoid a Democratic filibuster), have been extended once, and many in Congress are angling for their extension again.  The Ryan Budget, voted on by the House of Representatives, would have doubled down on the tax cuts, lowering rates even more--this in a budget bill which was intended to lower the deficit.

Two different theories of how the government can goose the economy--one based on Keynesian economic principles; one based on supply-side economics.  Neither has had much demonstrable success--we're still in a recession, after all--but the response of the political class to the two programs is wildly different.  The ARRA is regarded by much of the body politic to be a failure; a squandering of assets that ought to never happen again--and there even periodic proposals to rescind ARRA funds not yet dispersed.  On the other hand, the political class takes as an axiom that the Bush tax cuts do have a stimulating effect--the moribund economy notwithstanding.  Attempts to raise revenue as part of a deficit-reduction package is opposed on the grounds that We Can't Raise Taxes During A Recession--and the  "Laffer Curve" theory of deficit reduction (that lowering tax rates will increase revenues to the additional economic activity stimulated by) seems to be earnestly believed by many, even though at the current tax rates, it's patently ridiculous.

Why this double standard exists is left as an exercise for the reader.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

If users prefer rail to bus (or vice versa), what should be done about it?

Jarrett, writing once again on the theme of bus-rail differences (in preparation for a new book he's working on), writes an article on sorting out the rail-bus differences, along with a followup. In the series, he takes a list of (perceived) differences between bus and rail that were posted at The Infrastructurist, and sorts them into three categories: 
  • Intrinsic differences: Real technical differences between bus (including trolleybus) and rail (including, it appears, things like monorails and rubber-tire metros);
  • Misidentified differences:  Differences which are related to propulsion rather than guideway type, or differences which arise from how specific lines are implemented in specific systems
  • Cultural feedback effects:  Difference which arise from a result of cultural perception, law, or custom.
I won't repeat the list or the analyses here; go read the articles for those details.  However, there is a forest that is being missed for the trees.  Jarrett, I'm sure, knows this, but it merits pointing out.  The discussion of "cultural feedback effects" vs real vs miscategorized differences is important and useful, but there's a bottom line being danced around. That is:

1) There seems to be a quantifiable and measurable preference for rail over bus, at least in much of the developed world.

2) This preference may or may not be rational, may or may not be alterable (to the extent that planners ought to try), and may be conflated with issues dependent on local circumstances or practice, or who knows what else. (True apples-to-apples comparisons are often hard to make).

Given all of that, what should we (transit advocates, planners, decision-makers, or anyone else who cares about this) do about it, whether in planning individual lines or entire systems?  Specifically:

  • When and where should planners and decision-makers include modal biases in their forecasts (i.e. "a light rail line will attract X passengers per day, a BRT line will attract Y") and how much weight should these things be given?
  • To what extent should transit agencies, et al, attempt to change these views?
There are plenty of schools of thought on the issue.  One one hand, there's a school of thought that says that if reputable data (and proper decision-making requires access to good data) demonstrates a modal bias, that should be reflected in any subsequent analysis, and not colored by political considerations.

There's another school of thought that holds that such biases ought not be considered, especially if they are likely to be irrational (i.e a survey states that 20% more riders will ride on rail than on an equivalent bus line, and the stated reason for that preference is that busses are slow and full of drunks), and that only good "hard" reasons for one choice or another should be considered, such as cost or technical parameters, and that "illegitimate" reasons for a preference ought to be given no weight.  (This view is especially common when the reasons involved can be demonstrably reduced to racism or other forms of prejudice, which good public policy ought to oppose).

Some go so far as to suggest that modal bias (unjustified by tangible differences) is a problem that transit agencies ought to try and solve.

But these questions are ultimately political ones--decision-makers need to take all relevant factors into account.  I tend to favor providing as much quality data as possible to decision-makers, and letting them handle the politics.  (Not that they will necessarily do a good job here, but that is their job...) And while many non-intrinsic differences may be irrelevant in the abstract, they are often quite relevant in the context of a particular agency or system--if rail solutions gets signal priority at grade crossings as a matter of law whereas bus does not, or if a particular agency is not willing to add a new type of rolling stock to a fleet as part of a system expansion, these are important factors to consider.  If there are changes for the better in the wider environment (cultural, regulatory) that can be made, then plan for those; but transit systems have to exist in a particular place.

And difference which are specific to that place can frequently be just as important as those differences which are universal.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The public employees that conservatives love

This article was originally submitted as a comment in response to an article thread posted in The Daily Dish last December.  It was not chosen for publication there, so I'm belatedly writing it here instead edited slightly for article format, given the recent prominence that public employee unions have had here at DHT.

With all the discussion on the problems of the nation's educational system, and the amount that factors such as teacher compensation systems, school administrations, teachers' unions, and the culture at large have on our underperfoming schools--I think it's worthwhile to draw a parallel between teachers and another class of educated public sector professionals.  This profession is one which is ubiquitous, typically ran at local levels of government, generally unionized, considered to be vital to a prosperous civilization--and one which is also frequently subject to heated public disputes about its conduct and competence, into which public employee unions are frequently drawn.  It is also a profession that, unlike teachers or transit workers, is generally beloved by the conservative side of the political spectrum.

I speak, of course, of police officers.

The Thin Blue Line

Big-city newspapers are filled with accounts of incidents where a cop has an unpleasant encounter with a member of the citizenry (up to and including deadly force).  In many of these encounters, the pretext for the police's conduct is found to be questionable, frequently resulting in community outrage--and the cop in question is invariably protected, seemingly no matter the circumstances, by the local police union.  This is especially the case in places (such as Portland) where the civilian government overseeing the cops generally does not tolerate police misconduct.  But the same behaviors which many on the political right deride in many public professions, particularly in teaching--workplace rules that make it difficult to fire bad teachers, seniority-based promotion and retention policies, and a workforce allegedly more interested in professional solidarity rather than in public service--are routinely praised when observed in law enforcement. 

Law-and-order politicians and activists are often more than willing to sweep abuses of power aside on any number of grounds: the perp had it coming, officers have a tough job, etc.  Praises of the the "thin blue line" are frequently sung.  Many of the excuses which prompt calls of "cry me a river" when uttered by teachers (deplorable conditions, insufficient support from higher-ups) find a sympathetic ear when invoked by the police.  And to be fair, many liberals who are quick to denounce abusive cops are in many cases far less eager to denounce bad teachers--instead blaming the environment, the parents, a lack of funding, etc. for failings in the classroom.

Geese and ganders

Other similarities exist between the police and the public schools.  Both are professions, jobs requiring college degrees, and lots of professional judgment on the part of practitioners.  Both careers involve extensive dealings with the public, including many members thereof who don't appreciate the service.  Both careers also are challenging to manage--the quality of an individual practitioner cannot generally be measured with simple metrics, and attempts to do so frequently produce undesirable results.  And both professions pattern themselves after similar institutions, namely the armed forces and the academy.

Law enforcement in the US is modeled in many ways on the military.  Command structures and ranks are military in origin, and many departments include paramilitary tactics as part of their training (whether warranted or not).  It's not uncommon to hear officers working bad neighborhoods describing the environment as a "war zone".  On the other hand, the severity of the discipline is far less in civilian law enforcement   (Can you imagine a commanding officer trying to discharge a problem soldier being overruled by an arbitrator?) 

Likewise, public education likes to fashion itself in the robes of academia--the teaching staff of a school is called the "faculty", and concepts such as tenure and academic freedom are lifted wholesale from the university context, despite the fact that college professors are generally not unionized (and thus are not protected by collective bargaining arrangements) and public schoolteachers aren't typically engaged in research programs which might be controversial and subject to political interference, the justification for tenure in higher education in the first place. 

I think that a useful political compromise might be this:  What is sauce for the goose ought to be also sauce for the gander.  What's good for teachers ought to be also good for cops.  If someone suggests that we should try to bust teachers' unions and/or abolish other personnel practices which are (arguably) more appropriate for factory workers rather than skilled professionals; ask them how they feel about doing the same to the local police force.  If someone says that teachers are overpaid, ask what they think of the salaries of cops.

And vice versa.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

More on public employee unions

A few weeks back, DHT covered an article by proud leftist blogger Freddie de Boer, which suggested that the "true" political left in the US was largely excluded from the mainstream professional blogosphere.  Freddie proposed that a way of distinguishing true leftists from "neo-liberals" was their position on organized labor issues, and according to him, quite a few bloggers (such as Matt Yglesias) whose petitions were often adversarial to labor fail to qualify.  The article prompted much debate, including a defense from Yglesias.

Now, another prominent blogger--this time the libertarian-leaning Will Wilkinson of The Economist, has stuck a stick in this hornets nest.  The title of Will's opus is swift and to the point:  Government workers don't need unions.  Will drags an old FDR quote out of the attic to bolster his point ("The process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service"), and makes essentially the following arguments.
  • Private labor/employee relationships are different than public ones, as the former involve two parties fighting over the surplus from some economic activity, whereas public sector workers are bargaining against the public good.
  • Many public sector workers don't need collective bargaining to protect their interests, as they often have civil service protections; and are found in such large numbers as to hold significant political power.  (I might add that many public employees hold jobs which cannot be easily outsourced; and that public-sector administrators and their elected-official bosses are generally under more pressure to deliver services than make money).
  • Oh, and they have the Democrats under their thumb--making Republicans appear to be the economic champion of the underprivileged (who by definition are neither wealthy, nor holding high-paying government jobs).
I've commented before on the tenuous relationship between organized labor and advocates for robust public services; quite a few transit bloggers I know are quite hostile to the local transit union.  However, Wilkinson's article contains several points which need firm addressing.

Regarding his first (in the list above)--essentially what he is saying is that in public-employee bargaining, we the taxpayer are management.  (A better analogy might be that the public at large are shareholders, and public officials are management).   That certainly changes the motivations of many people involved; it's not unsurprising to find those who don't care about relations between some corporation and its unions (or who even hold a union card in the private sector), but get outraged at media reports of highly-paid public employees who allegedly loaf on the job.  However, it ought not change the moral calculus one bit.  If you believe that jobs ought to pay a "living wage", it should not matter if the employer is a private enterprise or a public agency; nor should the public/private distinction matter if you are a firm believer in the premise that jobs should pay no more or less than what the market will bear.

Who's got the power?

Will is correct when he observes that public employees often enjoy greater bargaining power than their private sector counterparts.  The best evidence of this is their mere existence.  Many private sector unions (and indeed, entire industries) have been thoroughly smashed over the past three decades since Reagan first took office.   A great and somewhat unfortunate irony of labor relations is that in the industries where unions would have the most benefit, where the workers suffer the greatest levels of mistreatment and exploitation, they are mostly likely to be ineffective or missing altogether--as these are the industries where capital and management hold the strongest hands.  Conversely, where labor is "needed" the least--those markets where workers enjoy good wages and working conditions, are the areas where labor is likely to be strongest.   Part of this is due to the presence of the unions--their job, after all, is to win a better deal for workers--but part of this is because, as Will notes, the effectiveness of labor depends on its economic strength, not on any moral concern.  In those industries where work can easily be migrated elsewhere, or where workers are interchangeable, or where production can easily be stopped without damaging the interests of capital, labor does poorly.  Where workers have specialized skills, cannot easily be outsourced, or where work stoppages pose a serious threat to the boss's bottom line, labor fares well.  Strong unions grow stronger, weak unions get busted.

While Will's suggestion that maybe public employees ought to go away would serve to address one side of this inequity--the alleged overcompensation of public employees at taxpayer expense--he doesn't have any suggestions at all for how we might address it the other side of this phenomenon, and lift low-wage workers out of poverty.  Nowhere is the suggestion that coupled with attacks on the public unions, we ought to encourage and protect and foster private-sector unions, to help farmworkers and WalMart greeters and waitresses get off the minimum-wage treadmill.  (Or as an alternative to strong unions, find other ways to help improve their lot).

The privatization card

The bargaining power of public employees is not absolute, however; as anti-union public officials have several weapons in their arsenal, one of the most effective being privatization.   One of the key reasons that many conservatives favor privatization of public services (including arrangements where operations are contracted out to private operators while control remains in the hand of the public), is that  doing so turns public employees into private employeesAdding a private operator to the mix introduces another hand into the taxpayer wallet, but it is often effective in reducing wages, as private operators are insulated from the political pressures (and civil service regulations) which hamstring public administrators.  This is especially true for those services (including public transit in much of the country) which are viewed as "welfare", and have tenuous political support to begin with.

We see this a lot in the debate on public education.  While there are valid concerns that organized labor (which seeks to promote job security in addition to good pay and working conditions, and is thus frequently opposed to anything that might make it easier to fire teachers) opposes many sort of useful reforms, I suspect that a big part of the push for privatization isn't out of a desire to make education better, but to make it cheaper--and return the windfall to taxpayers.  (There are other factors as well that have little to do with economics; including a desire that many have for taxpayer-subsidized religious instruction).

Privatization has many defenders, including many parts of the media that consider it axiomatic that private agencies, motivated by profit, are inherently more efficient than public ones.  I'll agree that profit-focused agencies are better at making money; but they're not necessarily better at providing service.  There are countless examples of private companies (acting in countless industries--banking, telecommunications, and health insurance immediately come to mind) which seem to excel at nickeling and diming their customers to death.  Unsurprisingly, many of these industries are oligarchies, where the crucible of competition doesn't exist in any meaningful form.

Labor and political activism

Will also seems to consider it untoward that public employees attempt to better their lot via political activism (including the support of labor-friendly politicians), rather than solely seeking concessions at the bargaining table.  The prospect of elected officials owing patronage to unions is frequently denounced as corruption, under the theory that public officials have a fiduciary duty to the public to turn the screws on the government workforce as tightly as they can.  However, many conservatives seem far less bothered by the same sort of arrangements when rich people do it; and that it's perfectly legitimate for the Koch brothers or Richard Mellon Scaife to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into the political process to try and elect politicians who will be friendlier to their business empires.  It ought to tell you something that the Citizens United decision is largely praised by conservatives and loathed by liberals, despite the fact that its provisions also apply to labor--both sides know perfectly well who has the bigger bankroll at the poker table.

With regards to the impact on the fortunes of the various political parties, Will's observations may well be true--quite a few of the country's downtrodden seem to identify more with the GOP with the Democratcs--but it's worth asking why that ought to be.  Why should a poor person's livelihood be more threatened by a bus driver or school teacher making $50k a year, than by the multimillionaire Davos-hopping CEO who just got a bonus for sending good private sector jobs overseas?  While cultural and racial politics are likely a big part of it, the observation in the last paragraph (who has the most money to spend on political messaging) probably has something to do with it as well. 

Some final thoughts

As noted above, those of us involved in public-service activism frequently find ourself in adversarial situations with public employee unions.  Many of the government agencies we deal with lack plenary taxing power, and thus a direct conflict exists between the amount of service which can be provided, and the wages and benefits paid to the workers who provide the services.  It's tempting to pile onto the public employee unions and tell them it's their turn to take one for team progressive.  However, one question must be asked:

What would happen were major concessions to be won from public employees?  Would quality of service really improve?  Would class sizes shrink, bus frequencies increase, potholes get filled more quickly, and the folks at the DMV start to smile?

Or would the savings instead be "returned to the taxpayer", often in a form (such as broad-based rate reduction) that distributes the lion's share of the windfall to the wealthy, and the same class sizes and bus headways maintained--only now staffed with teachers and bus drivers who are more likely to come from the bottom half of the barrel? 

Four decades ago, when unions had broad market power and were producing inflationary spirals that threatened the economy, attempts to curb said power might have actually done some public good.  But in today's economic climate, such complaints are tantamount to fretting about mosquitoes while being chased by a hungry bear.  The growing economic disparity between rich and poor is the real problem facing the US today.  Taking shots at public employees will do nothing to narrow this gap, and might well widen it by eliminating a significant sector of what is left of America's middle class.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Quote Of The Day

From Conor Friedersdorf, substituting for Andrew Sullivan at The Atlantic:

The average suburban homeowner is a vocal proponent of property rights until the day when a nearby landowner wants to build an apartment complex on his property. Then the right not to live near renters is treated as sacrosanct.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Random thought for the day

Originally something I posted on a friend's Facebook page, but worth sharing here (and edited slightly):

I've always been fascinated by the way that some conservatives, particularly in the US, eagerly embrace things like social Darwinism, but detest the real thing.

I've long been flummoxed by how distributed intelligence (i.e. "the market") is trumped as the only way to manage something as complex as the economy, but then it is asserted that the Universe itself--something infinitely more complex that mere economics--can only arise due to the actions of a Creator.

Maybe we should just put God in charge of Wall Street. But given the things that Jesus had to say about money and wealth, I'm not sure our titans of finance would like the result.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Labor and the Left

This past Saturday, longtime (albeit retired) lefty blogger Freddie de Boer came out of his self-imposed retirement to lament a paucity of "true" leftists in the professional, "establishment" blogosphere.  Many professional establishment bloggers eagerly took the bait, and some who consider themselves progressives took a bit of umbrage (among them Matt Yglesias and Kevin Drum).  Some debate focused on the nature of establishment blogs--to me, they're just another establishment medium, and noting that views outside the Overton Window are not well-represented in establishment media is stating the obvious.  There aren't many guys wearing Harley-Davidson jackets and riding leathers attending black-tie events in Georgetown, either.  And certain viewpoints, such as real honest-to-goodness socialism (as opposed to fake "socialism" of the kind that allegedly ensnares the entire Democratic Party) are simply not permitted to be held by Very Serious People.

Even the tamer progressives who are so permitted, generally have to couch their arguments in the language of equity.  The sort of leftist rants commonplace elsewhere in the West, wherein the rich are held to be dirty rotten scoundrels who deserve to be taxed through the nose and are lucky that they don't get worse, are simply excluded from "serious" political discourse.   On other hand, equivalent arguments on the right--that the poor are lazy unworthies who don't deserve the pittance they do get from the government, are far too commonplace in our political conversation.  And many right-wing ideas that were dismissed as kookery as recently as a few years ago, now get mainstream attention.  (In some cases, the attention is mostly ridicule, but if your a political agitator, it's better to be ridiculed than ignored).

Of course, there are plenty of trade unionists, anti-corporatists, socialists, communists, and other Haters of Baby Jesus And Betrayers Of America™ in the wider blogosphere for your reading pleasure.  But you won't find them drawing paychecks from the likes of The New Republic.

The dastardly neoliberals

What was more interesting, I think, was the debate on the left's relationship to organized labor.  Freddie pounded a stake in the ground, stating that any progressive worthy of the term ought to, a priori, support organized labor in the US.  Many of the aforementioned A-list bloggers frequently take positions critical of labor; and its common on the left to brand those who fail to toe this line as "neoliberals"--a term, like "yankee", is frequently intended to be an insult.  Matt Yglesias, in particular among the blogerati, has been the subject of this line of criticism.  Yglesias defended himself on the charge of insufficient progressivism, noting that many labor unions (particularly in the public sector) frequently block or oppose reforms that would benefit the poor as a class, but which would reduce their own members' pay or benefits.

This is, of course, not a new debate.  Many bloggers on the transit beat, yours truly included, have periodically complained about transit unions, especially ones with compensation packages that are far more generous than one finds for equivalent-skilled positions in the private sector. I wrote over at Portland Transport, on the subject of TriMet's relationships with its union:

This is a particularly nasty fault line in progressive politics in the US--there seems to be a growing rift between many social service advocates and public employee unions. I can think of quite a few well-known transit bloggers and writers, dedicated progressives all of them--who loathe their local transit union. (One of these activists made an interesting observation--the cities with the best transit tend to have the strongest transit unions; whereas the cities which only run low-quality social service transit are more likely to have outsourced their operations, often to non-union operators). And as more and more private-sector jobs are outsourced and more private-sector unions busted, public employee unions are finding themselves more and more isolated--whereas in the past, the passengers on the bus were often union workers as well; a larger share of bus and train passengers are non-union white-collar or service workers.
A more thorough discussion of this occured at Ryan Avent's blog, wherein Ryan echoed many of Matt's criticisms of public employee unions.  Ryan writes:

It’s also interesting to me that the alternative, “true” lefty persuasion is one dedicated to the preservation of labor rights. This is an ideological position that doesn’t come naturally to a lot of young left-leaning people for a number of reasons. One is that they look at the empirical evidence and disagree, to some extent, with the notion that the destruction of labor was a cause, rather than a consequence, of broad structural transformations in the economy. (But that probably strikes Freddie as the kind of bullshit an on-the-payroll neoliberal would say.) Another is that younger individuals have had their formative ideological experiences in an era in which labor strength is concentrated in sectors that are either public or dependent on public largesse, and these unions often place themselves squarely in the path of reforms sought by left-leaning writers. I’m sure it was easier to be sympathetic to labor when it was winning limits on truly heinous business practices rather than fighting against merit-based pay for excellent teachers.
In the comments, I noted the existence of what I will call the trickle-over theory, by analogy with trickle-down:  This theory, frequently cited by public employee unions as to why they ought to receive the pay and benefits which they do, is that high(er) public-sector wages will result in higher wages in the private sector as well.  There are several grounds to question this theory:  many public sector jobs have no private sector equivalent--high pay for bus drivers is not likely to drive up wages for electricians, after all; public sector jobs are far less susceptible to things such as outsourcing; and public sector labor arrangements frequently make it difficult if not impossible for outsiders to get such jobs.  And for many such jobs at municipal levels of government, the relative unprogressive nature of the tax structure often means it's the working poor socked with the bill for all of this.  When it comes to public sector unions, all of us, in a sense, are management.

Ryan continues:

I suppose I see organized labor as a means, not an end. Some traditional leftists believe that a return to widespread unionization will mean a return to the (in some ways) more egalitarian world that went with it. My sense is that neoliberal writers tend not to agree that unions are an effective means in this way. But that doesn’t mean they’ve changed their view of the desired ends.
A commenter, though, makes an interesting and important point:

I think the problem is the absence of a countervailing power, as J.K. Galbraith called it. Unions do other things besides control the labor market; they are political actors that counter the corporate agenda. Neoliberalism may be correct from a policy perspective, but it has no base of action. It leads to a Democratic Party of individuals fighting a GOP composed of churches and powerful corporate entities with no limits on their spending.
So I suppose I’d say that neo-liberals need to construct a new civil society that fits within their ideology.
Ignoring corporations, which can take of their own, the importance of the rise of the religious right in the GOP camp cannot be understated--it gives conservatives a (somewhat) dedicated block of voters who can be easily mobilized to turn out and support right-wing causes.  And how this was pulled off is fascinating--decades of theological writings and pronouncements holding that the corporate agenda is in fact not only compatible with, but required by, Christian doctrine--never mind what Jesus himself had to say on the subject.  Labor unions long served as the organizing focus for Democrats--and still do--but the number of voters they can get to the polls is likely on the wane.  Coming up with social structures which can motivate progressives (and which don't require the presence of charismatic leaders such as Obama on the head of the ticket), is a key problem that the left needs to solve.

Meanwhile, across the pond

While drawing inferences on the politics of other countries and applying them to the US is risky, it's intuitive to look at what's going across the pond.  In the UK, the two progressive constituencies discussed here each have their own political parties:  Labor has Labour (we all know how much Englishmen love u's), and neoliberals have, for better or worse, the Liberal Democrats.  The analogy isn't exact--Labour has moved considerably to the right since its days as a de facto socialist party, and includes some socially conservative elements that tend to vote Republican in the US--but it's close.  And the two parties don't like each other much; after the recent parliamentary elections, in which no party got a majority, the Lib Dems elected to form a coalition with--the Conservatives, who have responded to Britain's economic woes with a broadly-unpopular austerity program which critics charge imposes most of the pain on the poor.  And Nick Clegg's party has suffered tremendously for it in the polls; far more so than have the Tories.

It should be noted that the Overton Window in the UK, like elsewhere in Western Europe, is considerably further to the left.  (One piece of evidence is that most European nativist political parties tend to support pro-labor economic positions, unlike the Randian social Darwinism found within US social conservativism).  So take this all with a grain of salt.

The future of labor

What the future of organized labor will be in the US, is hard to foresee.  Many predict it will continue to wane, undermined by a race to the bottom against a rising global power which, despite its history of communism (and its continuing nominal embrace of such), has morphed into a mercantalist state which keeps its own labor force strictly in check.   Others have predicted that the branch will finally snap, and that a new populist movement of some political stripe will arise and fundamentally alter the economic order.  (The Tea Parties have demonstrated quite a few signs of independence from and frustration with the GOP establishment, and have an anti-elitist streak a mile wide--one which so far has been focused on "cultural elites", a cohort presumed to be liberal).  As the US faces its own public debt crisis, who suffers and how much will likely become a more dominant theme in domestic politics.

In many ways, the relationship between labor and the broader left strikes me as similar to the relationship between a basketball team and a mercurial star player--one who is tough to guard, scores points in droves, and draws crowds, but is a pain in the ass in the locker room and who isn't well liked by many of his teammates (who frequently have their own agendas).  I don't mean this analogy to be insulting at all, but it illustrates well the contradictions and difficulties inherent in the relationship.  And it's a broader problem for the left in a system such as ours--where raising the necessary capital (political and financial) to be a contender frequently requires compromising principles and desires, and dealing with issues (and people) that might otherwise be best avoided.

The good news, is that the most powerful labor leader in the US, AFL-CIO head Richard Trumka, seems to understand the broader issues.  He seems to understands that labor politics must uplift the poor and working classes as a whole, and not just those with union cards.  He seems to understand that for labor to thrive, the fundamental rules of the game must be changed, and not just tweaked.  And he seems to understand that this is a long game.

And to address the dichotomy posed by Freddie:  the differences between "neoliberals" and the "pro-labor" left aren't as important as the differences between the boarder progressive agenda and the plutocracy.  Much of the substance of this debate is about which various factions of the working class are entitled to the bigger share of the crumbs.

Personally I'd prefer working on getting a bigger slice of the pie.

Oh, and Freddie?  Don't stay retired too long.  You're still at the top of the game, and whatever you can contribute, the country needs your voice.

[ed: Fixed URL]